How Online Harassment Can Cause Damage in Real Life

Twitter has promised to make it easier to report harassment, but advocates are skeptical whether these changes will curb cyberbullying.
(Photo: ljubaphoto/Getty Images)
Nov 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Shari Sharpe is an editorial intern at TakePart.

Celebrities from Lena Dunham to Leslie Jones to Sue Perkins have been chased off Twitter at some point following sexist and racist harassment. Despite public outcry for the social media platform to address and shut down abusive accounts, Twitter has largely failed to quell the vitriol spewing from thousands of users. On Tuesday, the company announced that it is stepping up its game with a series of updated tools to combat harassment and hate speech.

“The amount of abuse, bullying, and harassment we’ve seen across the Internet has risen sharply over the past few years,” Twitter officials said in a statement. “Abusive conduct removes the chance to see and share all perspectives around an issue, which we believe is critical to moving us all forward.”

To help weed out some of the offensive content, Twitter has added a mute button in notifications that will allow people to hide certain keywords, hashtags, and conversations. Users can now specifically report offensive tweets as hate speech when they’re confronted with comments that target religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Twitter officials say this approach will allow their support staff to process the complaints more efficiently and thus reduce the burden on the abused user.

For Dr. Sameer Hinduja, codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center, these changes couldn’t come soon enough.

“Everyone is living their lives online, and in time, everyone is going to be exposed to hatred and cruelty,” Hinduja told TakePart. The hallmarks of Twitter—the anonymity of its users, the ability to respond to any tweet—have allowed harassment and hate speech to continue largely unchecked.

“[Harassment] doesn’t happen by the majority of people—in fact the majority of people are civil and respectful—but you’re always going to have a small minority that engages in online cruelty,” Hinduja added.

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Regardless of its size, the group of users promoting hate speech on Twitter has proved vocal and unrelenting, especially throughout the presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump. The president-elect often takes to Twitter to share his views—and many of his most ardent supporters use the platform as well.

Those who have raised objections to Trump have received onslaughts of aggressive tweets from alt-right white supremacists. After criticizing Trump, National Review journalist David French experienced abuse on Twitter in the form of anti-Semitic and racial slurs, along with a photoshopped image of his adopted daughter in a gas chamber. Some of that abuse transferred from Twitter to become more pressing threats: French and his family were harassed through email and over the phone.

“You kind of can’t underestimate the ways in which the internet and our lives online are completely intrinsically linked with our lives offline,” filmmaker Cynthia Lowen told TakePart. “When these things are happening to you on the internet, it doesn’t just stay on the internet.”

Lowen, whose upcoming documentary Netizens focuses on the impact of cyberbullying on women, pointed to Anita Sarkeesian, a video blogger whose experience of online harassment transitioned into terror and death threats.

“Online harassment is interfering with women’s ability to access all that the internet offers,” said Lowen. “It impacts their lives offline profoundly in terms of their economic potential, their education, their personal safety, their reputation, their mental health, and all of these sort of consequences.”

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Lowen hopes her film will “debunk this idea that ‘Oh, it’s only the internet. Just turn off your computer. Just walk away.’ We need to change our attitudes about what is normal online and foster constructive digital citizenship.”

One of Twitter’s most significant changes could be its commitment to retrain its support teams regarding the company’s harassment policies, including historical and cultural context about what constitutes hate speech. Women and people of color have often noted that even when they report tweets as offensive, Twitter officials do not agree that the comment violates their policies.

Twitter’s changes will not end hate speech on social media, but Lowen is hopeful that they are a step in the right direction. “We need to really encourage the technological community to design their platforms so that it isn’t so easy to harass—so that it’s harder to harass than it is to get safety,” she said. “We can change this idea that abuse is a price of admission to the internet.”